When my fiancée first immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam at the age of 10, she was overwhelmed by English speech.
Spoken English, she recalls, sounded like “sharp, rapid thunder claps” that often necessitated pressing her small hands tightly against her ears.
She first revealed this information when I told her I thought her family — who speak Vietnamese at home — was obscenely loud. I had mentioned, jokingly, that it appeared as if, even just sitting around the dinner table, they were all arguing angrily. (On that particular occasion, it turns out they were actually discussing, quite diplomatically, spring rolls.)
“So maybe you hear them in the same way I heard my first English,” Tawny explained. “All of the difference is heightened, exaggerated.”
Damn, she’s smart and hot.
Still, this completely logical explanation did little to avert our earliest repeating mini-argument: Watching films in closed caption.
I used to loathe watching movies – especially ones I found cinematically stunning – with the captions on. I always noticed my eyes automatically snapping upward or downward to the constant presence of text, dragging my gaze away from the actors and the settings. This was particularly difficult when we used to watch movies on her small laptop and the text seemed to cloak one-third of the screen.
Yet interestingly, even as Tawny’s English proficiency became far above average (she graduated with honors and currently attends a reputable law school), she still, occasionally struggles with unfamiliar speech patterns. Certain accents, accelerated speech, and muffled words (Bane in the third “Dark Knight” flick was even worse for Tawny than he was for the rest of us) can sometimes make it difficult for her to follow plotlines. Compound this with heavy soundtrack mixing (“The Social Network” is a particularly egregious offender of this, though I did love the film), and you have a movie that is only semi-intelligible, and therefore significantly less enjoyable.
Also interestingly, when Tawny becomes increasingly familiar with an actor, she begins to understand them more readily.
This is good as we both enjoy Jon Stewart and Comedy Central’s live closed captioning is shit.
Over the past several years I’ve grown accustomed to the rapid-fire of text along the bottom of the screen. Sometimes it races a bit ahead of the spoken script and reveals a punchline or plot twist that won’t be released in audio form for another two seconds. But I’ve learned to appreciate this. I imagine I have VIP access to the show and I get mini inside looks before the rest of the world.
I have also picked up on a number of lines and phrases I previously missed in audio-only watching. “The Social Network” in particular is rife with clever Sorkian zingers heavily drenched in Trent Reznor’s cyber-techno. “Fight Club” shares a similar benefit.
I can now take in the entirety of a film and the captions with ease (I’m sure our 50-inch television doesn’t hurt). I’ve learned to genuinely appreciate the dual experience of captions and audio.
But more importantly, Tawny and I are able to unwind together after a long day, the dogs resting by our feet, a glass of wine between us, and enjoy a good flick.
And I know that when I begin watching more Vietnamese cinema, I’ll be demanding captions.